Why Losing Adam & Eve is So Hard

Evangelical opposition to science is no small matter. It spills over into Catholicism, and moderate and liberal Christianity to a degree. It has taken up residence in the GOP where it is worn as a badge of pride by leaders who reject much of mainstream science and deflect concerns with the populist refrain “I am not a scientist.” This opposition plays a significant role in America’s declining global leadership in science. It plays into a general distrust of science in America that nurtures the rejection of modern cosmology, climate science and vaccinations.

See Also: Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible's First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World (Beacon Press, 2015).

By Karl Giberson
Scholar-in-Residence in Science & Religion
Stonehill College
June 2015


In mid-winter 1656, fourteen years after Galileo died peacefully in his Tuscany home, still under house arrest for his views on the motion of the earth, armed men burst into the home of another subversive, the French Calvinist Isaac La Peyrère, and hauled him off to prison. Heresy hunters had dispatched them to deal with a threat to Christianity even greater than that of Galileo. After “enhanced interrogations” La Peyrère was escorted to Rome where, after an audience with the Pope, he recanted his heresy, rejected his Calvinism, and joined the Roman Catholic Church.

In mid-winter 2011 another scholar, this time an American Calvinist named John Schneider, was summoned by heresy hunters and interrogated for the same beliefs that had threatened La Peyrère.

The heresy was the status of the Biblical Adam. La Peyrère got in trouble for his book Men Before Adam, arguing that Adam was not the first man. While no historically celebrated trial accompanied Schneider’s interrogation, he, like Galileo and La Peyrère, still suffered serious consequences: He lost the job he had held—and loved—at Calvin College for a quarter century. His crime was a 2010 publication, “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins,” suggesting that not only was Adam not the first man, he never existed.

The Central Myth of Western Culture

For the past three decades I have spent untold hours wrestling with theological issues related to origins. I have taught origins to thousands of students, written hundreds of articles, given dozens of talks, and just published my tenth book with Beacon Press: Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire and Make Sense of the World. I have been celebrated and vilified for my efforts by both evangelicals and atheists.

Over the course of these experiences I have become convinced that the only origins issue that really matters to most Christians is Adam and Eve. Leave Adam and Eve—and their Fall—in place, and most opposition to the Big Bang, evolution, and the great age of the earth will recede. The historicity of Adam and Eve is the single most important issue driving evangelical Christianity’s widespread, deep, and disturbing opposition to science.

Evangelical opposition to science is no small matter. It spills over into Catholicism, and moderate and liberal Christianity to a degree. It has taken up residence in the GOP where it is worn as a badge of pride by leaders who reject much of mainstream science and deflect concerns with the populist refrain “I am not a scientist.” This opposition plays a significant role in America’s declining global leadership in science. It plays into a general distrust of science in America that nurtures the rejection of modern cosmology, climate science and vaccinations.

Adam and Eve stand on the bulls-eye of this controversy, which has risen steadily over the past few decades as the human genome has been mapped. This progress has established with near certainty that humans are closely related to chimps and bonobos, with whom they share a common ancestor; that the human race originated in Africa millennia before the events in Genesis took place; and that the human race never consisted of only two people. The conclusion is clear: The couple described in the opening pages of the Bible never existed. So why is this such a big deal?

Adam and Eve, despite their brief appearance in Genesis, are arguably the most significant characters in Western Culture after Jesus. They are so important that millions of Americans choose to reject any science that threatens them on the grounds it would destroy their faith. “The denial of an historical Adam and Eve as the first parents of all humanity and the solitary first human pair,” warns leading Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler, “severs the link between Adam and Christ which is so crucial to the Gospel.” Mohler is one of millions of Americans who rejects broad swaths of science to preserve his belief in a young earth and a literal reading of Genesis.

For two millennia, the story of Adam and Eve has been at the center of many conversations, not just those related to Christian theology. As the paradigmatic first couple, created by God, and placed in Eden with marching orders for the entire human race, Adam and Eve have figured prominently in attempts to understand how we are supposed to behave. Their story, rightly so, as been labeled the “Central Myth of Western Culture.” Centuries of reflection on the first couple has shaped our ideas about marriage, free will, the exploitation of nature, the value of farming, the place of women in society, the nature of temptation, and even the place of the black race in the world. The invocation of the first couple today in the war against gay marriage continues a long tradition of looking to Eden to figure out how things are supposed to be.

Given how important Adam eventually became, his limited presence in the Hebrew Scriptures is puzzling. Just a few chapters into Genesis and he simply fades from the biblical canvas. No stories report what he did over his long life or how many of his nine plus centuries were shared with Eve. We don’t know how many children he fathered, how much land he acquired, or what legends arose about his youth and his sojourn in the Garden of Eden before it all went so wrong. Whatever disaster was precipitated by his sin is never again invoked in the Hebrew Scriptures; it plays little to no role in Judaism’s emerging self-understanding, at least as it unfolds within the pages of what we now call the Bible. God repeatedly judges sinful humanity—with the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues—but Adam as the source of the sin is never mentioned.

The first couple’s biography gets expanded considerably, however, in extrabiblical literature like the Apocrypha and Pseudopigrapha. We read there of Eve’s fifth child, a daughter ‘Awan, who grew up to be Cain’s wife. Another story tells of Adam, feeble and sick at the age of 930, gathering his children to pass on his wisdom. Seth takes pity on his aged father and offers to fetch some special fruit from the Garden of Eden. (Lipscomb 1990: 145) We find the fascinating tale of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, the demanding, and rebellious spouse provided for Adam in the first creation account. (Patai 1964: 295-314)

Adam would have remained a purely Jewish figure if not for St. Paul. Paul’s central theological intuition, as he wrestled with the meaning of the incarnation, was that God had created all of humanity and not just the Jewish people. Any first man would have to be the father of the entire human race. It followed that, at least in the eyes of their creator, every person had value, even the despised Gentiles. God loved everyone and, in a sense that was hard to understand in a time of great multi-faceted inequality, God loved everyone equally. In a his famous sermon to a Gentile audience on Mars Hill, Paul spoke of God making “of one blood all nations of men.” (Acts 17:26) In context, this was a profound statement of human unity to a culture that believed some men were naturally slaves.

Classics scholar Sarah Ruden argues that Paul, as he worked out his theology of Adam and Christ, Jews and Gentiles, males and females, sin and redemption, “created the Western individual human being, unconditionally precious to God and therefore entitled to the consideration of other human beings.”(Ruden 2010: xix) Social theorist Glenn Tinder calls this insight “the central moral intuition of the West,” and argues that much of the social progress in the West has been motivated by that intuition, albeit often buried under less noble agendas. (Tinder 1984)

Although Paul is clear on the unity of humanity in its universal descent from Adam, the first sinner, and the universal availability of salvation in Christ, he is not clear on the nature of this sin. It would be several centuries until Augustine would develop the understanding that we have today. In the centuries before Augustine, many viewed Adam as “Everyman,” implying that we have the same choice he did, to obey God and avoid sin. Otherwise, why did Jesus say “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Matthew 5:48)

Augustine, the most influential writer of the first millennium after Paul, invoked Adam to explain the overwhelming temptations that plague humans. Augustine wanted to understand everything from his overwhelming sexual lust to his frivolous interest in stealing fruit he didn’t even want from his neighbor. Why are we like this? It can only be, he concluded in what was to become a far-reaching orthodoxy that we are born with a deeply ingrained and pervasive sinfulness inherited from Adam—original sin.

Christian reflections on Adam continued to influence Western thinking, showing up almost every time something new entered the conversation. The great medieval thinker, Thomas Aquinas, laid important groundwork for the scientific revolution by defending human reason against charges it had been ruined in the Fall. Aquinas qualified Augustine’s understanding of the Fall by restricting its baleful influence to our wills, but not our reason. We are, said Aquinas, like the pre-fallen Adam in our mental capacities. His optimistic assessment encouraged intellectual activity that led eventually to science as Christians were energized to search for new knowledge, rather than simply living off the tradition of ancient wisdom.

The celebrated Italian poet Dante Aligheri explored the question of the first language by asking what was spoken in Eden. Could vestiges of this original language be identified among the present languages of the world? When God confounded human languages at Babel, did he simply introduce various confusions into the language of Eden? Was it possible that one of the existing human languages was actually the vernacular of Eden, when God came to walk with the first couple in the cool of the evening? A few centuries later, a creative linguist would argue that Chinese was the language of Eden.

Francis Bacon promoted science in the 17th century as a way to recover Adam’s ancient knowledge, and thus partially restore the lost paradise. As a protestant, his notions of the fall were more Augustinian than Thomistic, and he warned against trusting our fallen reason in our search for truth. We must, Bacon argued, allow nature to speak clearly to us through careful observation, a stance echoed by John Locke, Bishop Berkeley, and David Hume—the “British Empiricists.” In contrast, Renes Descartes and the “Continental Rationalists” rejected the notion that human reason had been ruined by sin and spoke more optimistically of the rational path to truth.

The great age of exploration raised new questions. Explorers carried tales of the first couple and their Edenic home with them as they explored new worlds. Columbus wrote home from the Americas claiming to have discovered the Garden of Eden in a particularly beautiful part of South America. Others would claim to have located Eden at the North Pole, in China, and even Ohio.

The discovery in remote corners of the globe of new tribes that looked very different and spoke different languages raised the most troubling questions of all. The 17th century definition of “human” was theological—humans were descended from Adam—rather than biological. Colonizers thus debated the humanity of Native Americans by asking if they were descended from Adam. Indigenous tribes claimed a history more ancient than Adam, and it was difficult to see how they could have migrated from the Middle East to North America. Those eager to exploit and even exterminate the Native Americans justified their cruelty on the grounds that these tribes could not be descended from Adam and were thus not human.

The enslavement of Africans was rationalized by appealing to the social structures of Eden. In Genesis 4 we read of God placing a “mark” on Cain for murdering his brother and lying about it when God asked what had happened. As early as the 5th century Cain’s curse was interpreted as black skin.1 When the Northern and Southern Baptists split in 1845 over the issue of slavery, the Southern Baptists were using Cain’s curse to justify slavery.

Similar arguments are used today to oppose gay marriage. Many Christians—and most conservative politicians running for office —invoke “God’s plan for marriage” by pointing to the story of Adam and Eve: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Matthew 19:5) This viewpoint is often summarized with a smirk as “God made Adam and Eve—not Adam and Steve.”


The story of the first couple and the social order established for them by God in Eden reaches deep into our world, shaping and influencing so many aspects of our lives, for better and for worse. The notion that God provided rules and social structures for the first humans to pass on is deeply appealing. America’s leading creationist, Ken Ham, calls his organization “Answers in Genesis” to emphasize that God created humans and their rules, and that this is laid out for all time in the “Book of Beginnings.” “We must start with Genesis,” Ham says, “if we are going to teach God's people how to defend the faith in this age of unbelief and skepticism.”

The power of this argument, which plays out quite differently than the theological one about Adam being the source of sin, draws on our tendency to root our values in historical narratives, to understand the present social order in terms of its past. We use formative stories like that of Adam and Eve mythologically —although Ham would vigorously object to this characterization—to create and maintain our social order and identity. We look to Eden for the anthropological blueprints of our tribe.

Science was born in the midst of lively discussions about whether Adam’s sin had ruined our chances to understand nature. Time has ruled in favor of Aquinas, not Augustine, on that one. But now the very science promoted as a way to recover Adam’s knowledge is telling us that Adam never existed. We should not be surprised that this revelation is being greeted with much wailing and gnashing of teeth.


This essay is adapted from Saving the Original Sinner: How Christians Have Used the Bible’s First Man to Oppress, Inspire, and Make Sense of the World by Karl Giberson.)


Lipscomb, William “The History of Abel and Cain”, 10, in Lipscomb, The Armenian Apocryphal Adam Literature, pp. 145, 250 (text) and 160, 271 (translation) (Louvain, Belgium. Peeters Publishers, 1990).

Patai, Raphael. “Lilith.” The Journal of American Folklore 77.306 (1964): 295-314. Web. 3 Oct. 2011.

Ruden, Sarah. Paul Among the People (New York, Image Books: 2010).

Tinder, Glenn. Against Fate: An Essay on Personal Dignity. Chicago: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. Print.

Comments (3)

I wouldn't have thought that the Empiricists thought that reason had been corrupted by Adam - they attempted quite a lot of reasoned argument and it is hardly possible to think that nature can inform us in scientific terms unless we have reasonable minds capable of responding to nature's information.
The weakness of human nature is, in any event, an idea based on reasoned observation.
I would have thought that most people could understand the Adam story as a powerful literary presentation of the inherent weakness of humanity, which is painful but also part of our power to progress and develop: 'falling upwards' which enables God to reach out to us.
As such it is a study of what happens to all of us both as we move individually from what Blake called innocence to what he called experience and as we absorb the cultural impact of the past. It's never crossed my mind to think that even the original story-teller really thought that he was describing a single event in history, simply about two people and a talking snake. I don't think I know any Christians who are even drawn to this thought. Perhaps I just don't know enough Evangelicals - are Republicans politicians really like that?

#1 - Martin Hughes - 06/10/2015 - 21:18

After the misguided doctrines of original sin and penal substitutionary atonement, a second major reason Adam is hard to give up, I think, is theodicy. At least among the evangelicals I grew up around, the idea that suffering is due to some vaguely defined "corruption" of the entire world (universe?) seems to provide a coping mechanism for pain and suffering. Without historical Adam and the Fall, we are confronted with the world as it really is: savage, unrelenting, unpitying.

#2 - Paul Davidson - 06/11/2015 - 11:23

Great post! Some thoughts:

#3 - Miller Jones/Lonnie Hendrix - 07/25/2015 - 14:31

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